FBI was out to get freethinking DeVoto

  • Bernard DeVoto: Is this man dangerous?

    Department of Special Collections, Stanford
  • Letters from the FBI's file on DeVoto obtained through the Freedom of Information Act

  • A 1950 FBI teletype targeting DeVoto. Blacked out lines remain classified.


Nearly 40 years after his death, Bernard DeVoto is remembered as a brilliant historian, pungent social critic and one of the West's earliest and most outspoken conservationists.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, knew him differently.

To the FBI, DeVoto was an "intellectual revolutionary," "the son of a fallen away priest of the Roman Catholic Church" and a shabbily dressed author "known to have associations with questionable or subversive groups."

The agency's file on DeVoto, obtained recently through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, is peppered with derogatory comments, hearsay and political gossip - just the sort of bureaucratic snooping DeVoto detested.

The FBI took note of DeVoto's reading habits, the company he kept and his "frontier childhood" in Utah. The agency was so suspicious it granted DeVoto special status - a place on its infamous "Do Not Contact" list, made up of people considered especially threatening. J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary former FBI director, also was involved. He monitored DeVoto's file closely and exhorted agents to round up more information.

Even today, much remains untold. The FBI, in releasing 197 pages on DeVoto, has also censored portions of many documents - by blacking them out with a marking pen. One page is so sensitive the agency won't release it at all.

Why the secrecy? Most of the information, after all, is more than 40 years old. What is hiding behind all the black ink? Is there a wiretap, break-in or embarrassing incident? Or is it more routine - the names and addresses, perhaps, of undercover agents and confidential informants? Only the FBI knows.

Starting in the 1920s, DeVoto's typewriter scarcely stopped clacking. His career, in fact, had much in common with the West he loved. It was broad. And there was a lot of it.

DeVoto's biographer, Wallace Stegner, called him a literary department store. The description fits. DeVoto wrote aisles of fiction, shelves of history, bins of criticism and an entire warehouse of contemporary essays, conservation polemics and political musings.

And his pen thundered. "He had a gift for indignation," Stegner wrote. "He believed some things passionately and could not contain himself when he saw them endangered by knaves or fools."

His work seemed to appear everywhere. Collier's, the Saturday Review, Redbook, Atlantic, Woman's Day, Fortune and many others published DeVoto. But his most famous forum was Harper's, where for 20 years - from 1935 to 1955 - he published essays and a controversial monthly column called "The Easy Chair."

Conservation was a familiar theme - especially when it involved the public lands of the West. "Mining is liquidation," he boomed in one famous Harper's essay in 1947. "You clean out the deposit, exhaust the lode and move on ... and you don't give a damn, especially if you are a stockholder in the East."

He taught English, too, first at Northwestern and then Harvard. But universities couldn't contain him. DeVoto's world was the world at large - not the narrow niche of academia. The bigger the issue, the better. He blazed his own trails. Sometimes he bulldozed them.

His biggest legacy is history. There he produced something incredible - three epic histories of the American frontier that are as remarkable today as when they were published. One of the volumes - Across the Wide Missouri - earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

With the three volumes, DeVoto "brought off something monumental, massive, grandly conceived and beautifully controlled," Stegner wrote. "In every way, they were the climax of Benny DeVoto's career."

While writing one of the histories in 1949 - The Course of Empire - DeVoto was also pursuing another passion: the defense of civil liberties. And that is how he tangled with the FBI.

It started with a single Easy Chair essay. But what an essay - Stegner called it "perhaps the most famous of all." Titled "Due Notice to the FBI," it was a stinging attack on the government spying, Red-baiting, blacklisting and Communist witch hunts that swept across America after World War II.

DeVoto, then living in Cambridge, Mass., had been interviewed by the FBI himself about someone who is not identified in the files. Many of his colleagues had also been contacted.

"How many are having their reading, their recreation, their personal associations secretly investigated?" DeVoto wrote in the column. "I say it has gone too far. We are dividing into the hunted and the hunters."

Near the end of the essay, he drew a line in the sand.

"Representatives of the FBI ... have questioned me, in the past, about a number of people and I have answered their questions. That's over. From now on any representative of the government, properly identified, can count on a drink and perhaps informed talk about the Red (but non-Communist) Sox at my house. But if he wants information from me about anyone whatsoever, no soap.

"I like a country where it's nobody's damn business what magazines anyone reads, what he thinks, whom he has cocktails with. I like a country where we do not have to stuff the chimney against listening ears and where what we say does not go into the FBI files along with a note from S-17 that I may have another wife in California."

The FBI was mortified. Hoover launched a public counterattack, denouncing DeVoto in newspaper articles across the country. He wrote an angry letter to the editor of Harper's, which the magazine published.

Privately, Hoover responded the way he always did with critics - by investigating them. A few minor items already lay in DeVoto's file. But his Harper's column worked like fertilizer: It made his file grow and grow.

All sorts of things ended up in the file - a newspaper clipping from Fresno, an agent's report in Boston, handwritten notes from Hoover, letters from DeVoto's enemies and internal FBI memos filled with vague suggestions of pro-Communist sentiments. DeVoto, the agency observed, "had among his collection of books a copy of Das Kapital, which he prized very highly." One of his friends was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. - now a well known historian - whose "father ... has been associated with several Communist front groups in the past." DeVoto once attended a reception "sponsored by ... a Communist-infiltrated group."

But the FBI didn't limit itself to political matters. DeVoto "is the son of a fallen away priest of the Roman Catholic Church (and) is himself a fallen away Catholic," one memo noted. Another document surveyed DeVoto's educational history and came up with this nugget: At the University of Utah in 1915, DeVoto "quickly established himself as an intellectual revolutionary."

DeVoto's enemies cheered. "More power to you in your attack on De Veto (sic)," wrote Wyoming rancher J. Elmer Brock in a letter to Hoover. "As far as the sentiments of the stockmen in the West, we would like to see Bernard hanging from a cottonwood limb rather than reclining in his "easy chair." "

Another item trickled in from Fresno - a column in an Armenian newspaper called Asbarez. The columnist, James Mandalian, wrote that DeVoto and other professors "would be the first to lose their heads if, God forbid, this country should have the misfortune of falling into the clutches of the Communists."

DeVoto's enemies re-ceived gracious replies. "I did want to write and thank you for your support," Hoover wrote to Mandalian. "Your penetratingly truthful remarks most certainly have placed the falsifications of Bernard DeVoto in perspective."

The FBI was even suspicious of DeVoto's appearance. The agent who interviewed DeVoto in July 1948 made the following observation in a report: "DeVoto greeted (me) at the door and I can clearly recall that he was unshaven, wearing a loose and somewhat soiled sport shirt and a pair of baggy summer slacks of dark hue."

DeVoto's article also earned him - and Harper's - special infamy within the FBI. The writer and the magazine were placed on the bureau's "Do Not Contact" list. "Listees - whether individual reporters or entire newspapers, magazines or radio networks - were denied FBI cooperation in the researching and verification of news stories," says Curt Gentry in his biography of Hoover. "This also meant, of course, that they were denied tips on forthcoming arrests and the like."

The FBI didn't stop there. Memos went out to 52 FBI field offices from Anchorage to Puerto Rico - warning agents about DeVoto's allegations and advising: "This article reflects the necessity of constantly being on the alert."

Few stones were unturned, few "facts" overlooked. When Hoover heard that another government agency - the Office of Naval Intelligence - had a file on DeVoto, he was excited. "Let us get what ONI has on DeVoto," he scribbled on one memorandum.

When Harper's published five letters about DeVoto's column in December 1949, the FBI had more fodder for its files. Three letter-writers were pro-DeVoto. Each was investigated.

DeVoto died of a heart attack in 1955. Earlier this year, his son Mark, a professor of music at Tufts University in Massachusetts, was shown a copy of his father's FBI file.

"It just staggers the imagination they spent all this time writing these reports," he said. "How could they get into a dither over this stuff? Hoover was absolutely paranoid."

The allegations of leftist sympathies produced little surprise. After all, said Mark DeVoto, his father was a frequent target of right-wing Red-baiters, including Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. The charges never stuck.

"My father stated repeatedly that he thought there was far greater danger to the U.S. in the suppression of free political thought than there was in any school of political thought," Mark DeVoto said.

But what about that prized copy of Das Kapital?

"Impossible," said Mark DeVoto. "Pappy would have said those writings of Marx are impossible to read because they're so dull."

In hindsight, it all seems a little silly. DeVoto was no closet Communist. He served in the Army in World War I - as a musketry instructor. From 1948 to 1954, he was a member of the Secretary of Interior's Advisory Board for National Parks, Historical Sites and Monuments. When other writers drifted to the left in the 1930s, DeVoto stayed put.

"He was neither a fascist or a Communist, but something perhaps even more disliked by the Inquisition - a bona fide liberal, a small-d Democrat who truly believed in the Bill of Rights even when it protected and was abused by his antagonists," Stegner wrote in DeVoto's biography, The Uneasy Chair.

DeVoto's transgression wasn't politics. It was something more simple - and, to the publicity-hungry Hoover, more serious. He publicly ridiculed the FBI.

Just what - if anything - the agency did with DeVoto's file is unclear because of all the black ink. Was there a smear campaign? Were "facts' leaked to a hostile congressman? We don't know. Mark DeVoto said his father seemed to suffer no ill effects from the incident - or the investigation.

In fact, he rather seemed to enjoy it. To one friend, DeVoto wrote: "I am glad you liked my piece and I will destroy your letter lest the Gestapo find it when they come to ship me to Indiana." And to another, he said: "Sure, I expect to be roused at 2:00 a.m. and marched to the salt mines."

Forty-five years later, the FBI's censorship of DeVoto's file seems out of whack. At the Justice Department - the FBI's parent agency - Attorney General Janet Reno has called for more openness in government. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary recently stirred national news by releasing long-secret files about radiation tests and other matters.

But at the FBI, old secrets have long lives.

A quarter century ago, a librarian at Stanford University - where DeVoto's papers are housed - wrote to the Justice Department asking for the release of DeVoto's FBI file. The FBI said no. "Regulations ... require that data in FBI files not be disclosed for other than official purposes," one document says.

Tom Knudson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter in Truckee, California, who covers environmental issues for the Sacramento Bee.

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